Recently, Al Masry Al Youm interviewed Dr. Basma Moussa, an outspoken Egyptian Baha’i. The interview covered a diverse range of subjects, from the history of the Baha’i Faith in Egypt, to the current difficulties facing the Baha’i community in Egypt.
The Muslim Network for Baha’i Rights translated the informative interview
What is the story of the Baha’i community in Egypt? When did the Baha’i Faith enter Egypt?
New religions usually spread through travellers moving from one place to another. The Baha’i Faith entered Egypt in the year 1864 through a group of Iranian merchants, four of whom decided to settle down in Egypt. Through them, Egyptians began to learn of the Baha’i Faith and Baha’is began to emerge.
The Baha’i Faith has had a presence in Egypt since the mid 19th century, and there was an official recognition from the state in the year 1934.
When did the problems begin?
The problems began recently, specifically in the year 1960 when a presidential decree was issued ordering all Spiritual Assemblies to be closed. Spiritual Assemblies coordinate spiritual and administrative aspects of the Baha’i community and after the decree was issued we were forced to turn to the elders of the community for guidance.
Did the closing of the Spiritual Assemblies pose a problem to you?
It wasn’t a big problem as we didn’t use them to congregate and pray; it served as an administrative building where meetings and marriage ceremonies were held. Problems emerged after 1960 because we depended on members of the Spiritual Assembly to resolve our problems. Now families depend on the experienced elderly in the community to solve problems.
Although the presidential decree that imposed a ban from congregating in the form of a National Spiritual Assembly was unjust, we have committed ourselves to it because of an important principle in our Faith: obeying the government in matters that are not against our Faith. We are committed to the decree and do not hold any elections.
What do you mean by elections?
The elections for the members of the National Spiritual Assembly. After the year 1960, several Baha’is were arrested in 6 separate cases, accused of breaching the presidential decree. The accused would spend a week, months or even a whole year in prison before they would be released as not guilty.
And throughout that time, no Baha’i was convicted of a crime against security or of indecency.
What are the most prominent problems that you face?
The issuing of identification cards began in the year 1960, the same year the National Spiritual Assembly was closed. At the time, Baha’is would have “Baha’i” or a dash “-” listed under the religion field in identification papers and the system was worked with until the year 1998, when National Identification Numbers [NIN] were introduced.
Four options were actually available under the religion field – “Muslim – Christian – Jewish – Other”, and the Baha’is’ details were shifted under the category of “other” and we did not suffer as we could extract National Identification Numbers with “Other” listed for religion. Unfortunately, not many Baha’is were able to do so and very few got birth certificates or national identification cards with “other” listed in the religion field,
And in the year 2004, an administrative decree was issued, and the decision is listed in the Executive Regulations of the Department of Civil status – that limits the options for religion to three – Muslim, Christian and Jewish.
I don’t know who issued such a decree, and what benefit there is in defining religions for Egyptians and forcing them to list a religion other than theirs. Such a move puts Egyptians in the position of contravening executive orders, especially since there is a clause which states that forgeries in entering data are punishable by three years imprisonment.
Secondly, if I write down “Christian”, “Muslim” or “Jewish”, I will face accusations from these esteemed religious institutions that I am an apostate. Thirdly, my Faith instructs me that honesty is the best human virtue and by listing a religion other than my own I would be going against the teachings of my own Faith.
Who was the first person to experience these difficulties?
It began with an engineer who tried to add his three daughters to their mother’s passport. Naturally, he submitted all the necessary cards, papers and the girls’ birth certificates and the normal procedure is that the clerk takes copies and returns the original documents. Instead, the clerk took all the papers and instructed him to return on the next day for the originals. When he returned the next day, he was surprised when the clerk informed him that he altered the religion on both the computer and papers to “Muslim”. It was certainly an unjust arbitrary act from the clerk, but he had learned of an administrative decision (No. 49 for the year 2004) that limits the number of religions to three.
In your opinion, why was such a decree (the Presidential decree of 1960) issued?
The decree was made during Egypt’s union with Syria, and in that time a unified constitution was issued that had no provisions for freedom of belief, and the constitution was worked with until the year 1961. Baha’is couldn’t protest because there was no clause they could resort to when filing a case. But after the new Constitution was ratified in 1971, we did file a lawsuit.
Why did President Abdul Nasser issue such a decree?
It was after the president visited Syria – and I’ve heard this account in a seminar – and the Syrian president told him “Why do you allow Baha’is [in your country] when their Holy Shrine is in Acre (Akka)?”
Is it true that your holy places are in Acre?
Yes, the shrine of our Prophet Baha’u’llah is in Acre. Our Prophet went to Acre as a prisoner in an Ottoman prison. The said prison was known as being the worst in the Ottoman sultanate, and as historians have stated “If a bird flew over it, it would fall” as the prison was plagued with diseases and had a terrible stench. He was sent there to die.
When he went to Acre in 1868 there was no Israel or Palestine, only the Ottoman sultanate. He died in the year 1892.
And the fact that he was forcefully exiled to Acre as a prisoner doesn’t mean Baha’is have a connection to Israel or the founding of the state of Israel. How can a prisoner create a state or assist in the creation of a state? Al-Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Nativity are also in Israel; God has made this place for all religions.
Do you feel persecuted?
I don’t want to describe it as persecution, but it is discrimination – religious discrimination. As a citizen, I have obligations that are taken from me, but I have rights which I cannot claim.
Do you think the discrimination would reach the level of persecution in the future?
We Baha’is believe that our religion is still in its infancy and our religion is facing the same predicaments all other faiths were met with. People don’t easily accept new religions, but it’s a period that will pass.
The Baha’i religion has followers in 235 countries and principalities and is considered the second most geographically spread religion in the world after Christianity. The acceptance of the Baha’i Faith in these countries and regions are proof that it is a religion of peace.
Do Baha’is have a problem with the state?
We do not have a problem with the state – all our problems are procedural and are represented in our inability to possess identification papers. I do believe that the government will resolve the issue.
What are your plans for the upcoming period?
The only place that opened its doors to us was the National Council for Human Rights and it adopted our cause since the year 2004. Even though we had knocked on many doors, we didn’t know where to seek help because like all ordinary Egyptians our major concerns were making a living and raising our children. Our religion prohibits us from engaging in political activities or going on strikes because we believe in the unity of humanity and factionalization demolishes that concept.
Who speaks for you in the National Council for Human Rights?
No one does it on our behalf. Our relationship with NHCR began after the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs published a book full of inaccuracies in which it claims towards the end of the book that the Baha’i Faith is disbelief and heresy, which are not in our Faith at all.
What was said in that book?
It stated that the Baha’i Faith is a kind of pestilential disease, and I took the book and filed a complaint with the NCHR. The book was an incitement against Baha’is.
I recall that I enclosed a copy of the book with my complaint, and the Council later held a seminar on removing the “Religion” field and we were invited to attend. It was the first time a governmental body invites us as Baha’is, and it was an audacious move.
Did you speak at the seminar?
Yes and when I spoke I said that I am a Baha’i, and the audience was shocked. It was the first time they had heard or seen a follower of the Baha’i Faith openly proclaim her faith.
What is the number of Baha’is in Egypt?
I cannot answer that as there is no census, but before the year 1960 a newspaper named “Al Youmiya” published that they number 5,000 in Egypt.
Can you estimate the number of Baha’is?
Some say 2,000 but the papers containing the census were confiscated from the National Spiritual Assembly and its members have passed away. I cannot give an estimate, but we are spread across the country.
If you were in a committee and people found out that you are a Baha’i, what would the situation be like?
It would be a very difficult situation and I personally haven’t experienced it before but have been through similar circumstances. I recently went to apply for a credit card but the clerk said he cannot give it to me as I don’t have a National Identification Number. And the last time I went to the bank, I was told that I could no longer withdraw money from my own account because I don’t have the required identification papers. Another example is that my sister wanted to apply for an apartment for her son, but was told that it’s not possible and recently our children have been incapable of being admitted to schools and universities.
How did the call for the Baha’i Faith – or the new religion as you described it – start?
Personally, when a person asks me this question I tell them they can research it online. Even if I were in a position where I could speak freely, I would not invite anyone to the Faith.
Is it because you fear infuriating others?
No, but an important principle of the Baha’i Faith is that people must investigate truth independently.
The Ministry of Interior declared that it doesn’t object to the judge’s decision that a “-” be placed in the religion field. Is that considered a sign of hope that the problem will be solved?
I believe so, because at first the Ministry objected to the ruling because the public opinion was against writing “Baha’i”. And the Baha’i community gave suggestions, which is to either list “Other” or write a dash, and the alternate solutions were accepted.
How are you treated outside Egypt?
There are Baha’is in all Arab countries and they are treated with utmost respect. Some Arab countries are very open and treat Baha’is as a segment of society and they contribute in finding solutions to certain issues such as poverty, education and others and they are treated as citizens.
The Universal House of Justice has projects in poor and developing nations that address the environment, education and small industries.
Do you consider yourself a sect?
The Baha’i Faith is an independent religion, with its own principles and provisions. And in 1925, a revolutionary ruling by a court recognized the Baha’i religion in Egypt.
What is the cause of this confusion? Is it a similarity in names?
Our religious provisions are entirely different. Baha’is fast and pray but they differ from the Islamic religion, and the Baha’i calendar has 19 months with each month containing 19 days. Marriage in the Baha’i Faith is different too, because we’re allowed to marry adherents of other faiths, but the consent of parents is required.
Have you faced any problems with your neighbours recently?
I personally have not faced any problems with my neighbours. In the recent period though there have been some problems, especially after the media covered the topic of Baha’is and after the Interior Ministry’s decision and the publication of the decree by the Ministry of Endowments condemning the Baha’i Faith.
Did they protect you?